With their proximity to Europe, the countries of the Maghreb have become dab hands at the diplomatic game..
They tend to punch above their weight and are, when they wish to be, African, Arab or even southern European.
Their position, just across the Mediterranean, makes them strategically difficult to disregard.
If things go badly for them, it is generally bad for Europe too, particularly those countries in the south of the world’s most prosperous continent.
The Maghreb Arab Union incorporating the five North African countries on which the sun sets was conceived as a powerful trading bloc for dealing with Europe.
However the MAU has been paralyzed by differences between Morocco Algeria and Western Sahara.
Some analysts are suggesting that the other members of the MAU should get on with the job of presenting a united front to Europe and leave the parties in dispute to sort things out.
When dictator Franco died in 1975 and Spain quit its colony known as Spanish Sahara, Morocco and Muaritania stepped in and occupied it in defiance of the United Nations.
“Defiance of the United Nations” sounds tougher than it really is.
A half century ago countries like Israel and South Africa turned their defiance into an art form, to the exasperation of the three Western permanent members of the Security Council who were obliged to protect them from the wrath of the fourth and fifth permanent members, namely the Soviet Union and China.
Remember this was the height of the Cold War and entirely different priorities were at play.
In 1975 South Africa both occupied Namibia in defiance of the world organisation and operated its policy of apartheid, judged to be a crime against humanity by the very United Nations the apartheid regime was thumbing its nose at.
The liberation movements fighting apartheid in South Africa – the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania – got short shrift from the Western powers who saw them as acolytes of the Soviet Union and China.
This was exactly the treatment meted out to the Saharawi liberation movement known as the Polisario Front.
Morocco benefitted from the simplistic “domino” theory coined by U.S. President Dwight D Eisenhower who argued that the fall of French Indochina would set off the demise of other Asian nations.
This misguided theory became the cornerstone of U.S military intervention in Vietnam and globally to Western opposition to liberation wars
South Africa cynically profited from such thinking, and posed as the strategic Western protector of the Cape sea route.
Hardly surprising then that when Morocco faced a liberation war by Polisario, which had proclaimed the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, the racist regime in Pretoria was an enthusiastic backer and one of the kingdom’s armourers.
There is nothing morally different from the invasions by Morocco and Russia of Western Sahara and Ukraine respectively.
Both were cynical and flagrant violations of international law.
The Western powers failed to act in 1975 and were powerless to intervene correctly in 2022 because the aggressor was one of them: a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
Morocco’s King Hassan had barely survived two coup attempts by rebel officers in the early seventies. He managed to persuade France that if he were defeated on the issue of Western Sahara, huge chunks of the kingdom, such as the Rif, would secede, thereby destroying a pro-western bastion against Islamist militants just across from Gibraltar.
A major factor in the ceasefire in Western Sahara in 1991 was Morocco’s promise to hold a referendum on self determination of the Saharawi people.
Thirty one years later it is clear Morocco has no intention of honouring its undertaking. Its Western backers, in turn, have no stomach for forcing it to.
Morocco stormed off in anger in 1984 when the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic was recognized by the Organisation.
When the OAU was transformed in 2002 to become the African Union, the SADR was a founder member and Morocco continued to turn its back on Africa in the vain hope of becoming a member of the European Union.
Recognition of Western Sahara by the Organisation of African Unity did not stop Morocco looting the resources of the occupied country.
Mauritania, that had seized the Southern third
of Western Sahara was beaten off by Polisario fighters.
As the Nouakchott forces left, Morocco stepped into the areas they had occupied.
Morocco sold fishing rights in Western Sahara waters to European and other nations even though the International Court of Justice had declared this illegal..
They have continued to plunder Saharawi phosphates that have made Morocco on of the world’s largest suppliers of this vital fertilizer.
At about the time the OAU became the African Union European countries had tired of their North African wannabe with its hand perpetually outstretched.
Stopped from selling resources stolen from Western Sahara, Morocco has limited commercial appeal to Europe.
It is the continent’s largest supplier of marijunana
It also sells oranges and prostitutes into the European market.
Thus Morocco was forced to show new interest in joining the new continental organisation.
Fifteen years after the formation of the AU, Morocco managed to sell a majority of the countries sharing its continent the shopworn line no longer bought by Europeans that it is a profitable partner.
No fewer than 39 African countries voted to admit Morocco in 1917, to the chagrin of major players like South Africa and Nigeria who had long ago tired of Moroccan lies about seeking settlement with Western Saahra.
“Africa is my home and I am coming home,” said King Mohammed VI disingenuously.
Five years later some African countries have received some phosphates stolen from Western Sahara. The bulk have yet receive any dividends from letting Morocco in.
Morocco claimed delight at re-established diplomatic ties with South Africa in 2014 – 14 years after recalling its ambassador when the SADR opened its embassy in Pretoria.
This has resulted in the envoy from Rabat having to s endure a number of lectures from the ANC government about about the shame of representing the last colonialist in Africa.
Morocco has made several unsuccessful attempts to marginalise the SADR.
It is no match for the powerful pro-Saharawi lobby in the AU and ever-vigilalant SADR diplomatic representatives.
Morocco has assumed apartheid South Africa’s role as Africa’s bully boy.
King Mohammed VI has said the Western Sahara is the lens through which its views bilateral relations.
He had some good fortune in the dying months of the Tump Presidency when the beaten US president recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara is exchange for Rabat signing a peace deal with Israel.
Half way through the Biden Presidency, Washington has yet to endorse this muddled thinking.
By removing guards from the Moroccan side of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melila on the North African coast, Morocco pressured the socialist President Pedro Sánchez to take a more charitable view of Morocco’s stance on Western Sahara.
It remains to be seen whether he can sustain this view which runs strongly against popular opinion in Spain.
Morocco bullied Tunisia by recalling its ambassador and applying trade sanctions when President Kais Saied received President Brahim Ghali for the Tokyo International Conference on African Development that it hosted.
Interestingly, Morocco never dared take such action when Japan received the Saharawi leader at the previous TICAD meeting in Tokyo.
My bet is the bully will be equally quiet when Ghali visits South Africa for the third time later this month.
Of course I could be wrong because Morocco has inherited another feature of its apartheid friend: the ability to shoot itself in the foot.
Lately the Rabat authorities have turned on France, that has been their shield and protector since 1975.
Rabat’s state-controlled media has made the fanciful assertion that Morocco will look elsewhere if France does not take a stronger line like the Trump administration and the Sanchez Government.
This is no easy task for Presidential Emmanuel Macron who is seeking new African friends to replace those West Africans who have turned their backs on Paris.
The condemnation by the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara has given France and others pause, particularly since it is followed by the court’s declaration that Morocco’s illegal military occupation of the country is in violation of international law.
There has not been a top level bilateral visit between France and Morocco in more than two years.
By contrast, Macron has been to Algeria twice this past year and French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was in Algiers with a top level Cabinet team this past weekend to concretise the new relationship forged between Presidents Macron and Tebboune.
The European are content to let Morocco seek trade ties elsewhere. It was precious little that they want.
I am confident that Africans will come to the same realization. It is just a matter of time.